‘Felicity’ actress finds new projects waiting

From: NorthJersey.com March 13, 2005
by: Amy Longsdorf

Seven years after “Felicity” put Keri Russell on the map, she’s headed back in the right direction, thanks to turns in Neil LaBute’s off-Broadway play “Fat Pig” and the Sundance fave “The Upside of Anger.”

Starring in “Felicity” as a curly-haired New York University student landed Russell in the hot zone. But back then, she was too busy with the show to take advantage of the heat. In 2002, when the WB series went off the air, she retreated into semi-retirement.

“I was out of sight,” she acknowledges. “I did that purposely. I took off a year, almost a year and a half. I finished ‘Felicity’ and I just checked out.”

On an impulse, Russell left Los Angeles, taking with her two boxes of books, her cats and a suitcase full of clothes.

“I rented an apartment in New York with nothing more than a mattress on the floor,” relates the actress, 28. “I lived there for a year, and I still live there. I just needed the break. Honestly, I didn’t know if I wanted to act anymore. I considered going back to school.”

She was, she says, “burned out” by the show, which required non-stop promotion and 18-hour sessions on the set. “Four years of doing [a one-hour drama on TV] is really life-arresting,” she says.

In New York, “I acted like a kid,” she says. “I spent my days hanging out with friends. I went dancing until 2 in the morning. I did all of the things that I had never done before. And it saved my life.”

Now, Russell’s back with a bevy of projects. She was recently seen in the Hallmark Hall of Fame ratings winner “The Magic of Ordinary Days” and will return to TV in TNT’s forthcoming six-part Steven Spielberg-produced project “Into the West.”

But first up is “The Upside of Anger,” a dysfunctional family drama about a Detroit housewife (Joan Allen) struggling with alcoholism, her four daughters (Russell, Alicia Witt, Evan Rachel Wood and Erika Christensen) and a randy neighbor (Kevin Costner).

Costner, for one, believes the movie – a hit at January’s Sundance Film Festival – could boost Russell to the ranks of movie star.

“She’s obviously a livin’ doll,” he says. “I think she has a really big career in front of her. Why? Because she’s smart and, if she makes really good choices in her work, I think we’ll see a lot more coming out of her.”

Russell is happy to return the compliment. She loves Costner’s performance in the film. “He brings such a sweetness to his role,” she says. And she was knocked out by Allen, whom she calls “an incomparable” talent.

“The thing with Joan is that she possesses this amazing [acting ability] but she’s also a quality human being.”

Russell aims to be a “quality human being” herself. During an interview in Los Angeles, she’s as outgoing and friendly as some of the characters she plays. She’s right on time, too, something she chalks up to her low-maintenance style.

“I wear the same jacket and jeans and Vans skater shoes every day, and I know the photographers are going, ‘We hate her. She’s boring,’Ÿ” she says between gulps of a café latte. “I’ve actually said, ‘Guys, this is all I’ve got.’Ÿ”

In “The Upside of Anger,” which opened in New York on Friday, it’s Russell’s girl-next-door vibe that adds a level of poignancy to her portrayal of a ballerina who works too hard and eats too little.

In the movie, which was written and directed by Mike Binder, Allen’s character is reeling from the surprise departure of her husband. She finds solace in alcohol and the company of her next-door neighbor, a washed-up former baseball player (Costner).

Meanwhile, Russell’s character is going through her own struggles, mostly having to do with her aversion to food. The actress, who danced when she was younger, understands how eating disorders can develop but says she’s never had to worry too much about her own weight.

“I can eat whatever I want,” she says. “My dad is very thin and I have an older brother who’s 31 and he’s so skinny. He’s too skinny, in fact. So, luckily, I’m thin. And always have been.”

Preparing for some of the film’s dance sequences was a challenge. When Russell danced regularly, her feet were so callused that standing on pointe was easy. But not anymore.

“I’d be just bleeding through my shoes,” she says. “So, needless to say, when the dancing scenes were over, I was celebrating.”

Russell was born in Fountain Valley, Calif., and raised in Mesa, Ariz., and Denver, in a family she describes as “exactly the polar opposite” of the one in “The Upside of Anger.” There was, she reports, precious little drama.

“When you grow up in a family that isn’t emotional, you are forever attracted to families who are emotional,” says Russell, whose dad was a Nissan executive and whose mom was a homemaker. “All of my friends and boyfriends have had families who are always yelling and arguing and making up.”

Of all of Russell’s recent jobs, LaBute’s off-Broadway play “Fat Pig” was the most daunting. Written by the man behind the corrosive “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors,” the play probed issues of prejudice and acceptance.

“Neil’s stuff is so modern and quick and sharp and mean,” says Russell, who starred in the show alongside Andrew McCarthy, Jeremy Piven and Ashlie Atkinson. “It was so much fun because I never get picked for those kind of projects.

“The whole experience was a very romantic one. The theater was just a few blocks from my apartment. Sometimes, I’d walk to the theater at night, and it’d be snowing. It was beautiful.

“Although I loved doing the play, being paid $300 a week is not going to pay for my apartment, which I just bought. Sometimes, I have to go back to L.A. to get a real job.”